Phenomenology goes against the tide. It embraces the first-person, or subjective experience, as authorised, logical, valid and legitimate. In phenomenology the first-person point of view is generous, trustworthy and valuable. To understand the strength and uniqueness of the first person requires we release particular stories or myths about the world and how we perceive it.
We are given a script for how the world works yet often, if we stop and look beyond the script, we can see the story fails to fit, to varying degrees. The world itself differs to the story. Our experience of the world exceeds the structures we have constructed. And, if we allow the old story to crumble, we may see the world with fresh eyes, as it is, not as we narrate it.
Many elements of the script, or story, can be safely discharged. Below is my first suggestion.
First, we must reject the idea of perception as a script between two parties; the seer or perceiver and the seen or perceived. The accepted story of perception is that you look at, for example, a dog. You then perform a mysterious, cognitive, internal, private magic called cognition, perception, thinking, representing, etc..
Many textbooks contain a version of a familiar diagram that claims to depict ‘the act of perception’. In this, a drawing of your eyeball may project an arrow onto the form of a dog. From the dog, a second arrow draws out and targets your eyeball. Inside your skull, or above your head in a fluffy cloud, sits a smaller version of the dog. This script has two roles: there is you, looking, and there is the dog, being looked at.
Yet, what of the arrows? Looking is not an act of the eye upon an object. Looking contains not two ‘performances’ in the looker and the looked. To see is a three part event. Seer, seen and seeing itself. The experience of looking seeing, perceiving is not one of cognising then representing to oneself.
If we are standing beside each other, both having an experience that includes looking at a dog and I ask you, “Where is the dog?” you do not point at your head. You point to the dog. When we perceive the dog, we are putting ourselves ‘in’ the dog. We are not creating a small dog within us. We are, instead, reaching out, accepting the givenness, opening into the dog.
Phenomenology is built on the idea that when we experience, we are experiencing something. That is, that consciousness is always a consciousness of something. ‘Of’, which seems a small word here, is actually doing an incredible amount of muscle work. The phenomenological idea of intentionality is often defined as “consciousness of something” yet this ‘definition’ tends to produce fog not clarity. The key is the power of ‘of’.
The experience of perceiving a dog is an experience whereby our consciousness is sited within the dog. Our act of intentionality is to find that consciousness there.
Let me know what you think of this idea.
And look out for the next few posts where we will challenge other aspects of ‘the script’ about perception through the clean-cutting power of phenomenology.